In 1528, the Spaniards started to explore the west coast of Florida. Four hundred men started out on the Narváez expedition in search of gold, one of them was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He was actually one of the chief officers. Several months from departure, they landed somewhere near present-day St. Petersburg, Florida. When they didn’t find gold there, the officers decided to lead the march north.
Starvation killed many, and after fighting Native Americans through Florida’s swampy wilderness, there were only 242 men left. Many of them slaughtered and ate their horses just to survive, but then after another attack of Native Americans, the officers decided to flee to Mexico. They used anything they could find to build five makeshift boats in order to get the crew safely to Mexico City. At this point, there were only 80 survivors. Cabeza de Vaca led one of these boats, and after weeks of treacherous storms and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, they wrecked onto present-day Galveston Island.
More starvation and disease decreased their number to 15 before they were enslaved by the Native Americans. As de Vaca put it, “We looked the very image of death and the north wind began to blow and we were closer to death than to life…” Though they faced much hardship, after six years in captivity, the four remaining men escaped. The four men were: Cabeza de Vaca, Estevanico, Dorantes, and Castillo.
They were headed for Mexico City, but little did they know, it was 2,000 miles away. The group encountered numerous Indian tribes on their trip, who he traded with to get food for his group. Cabeza de Vaca was naked the entire trip because he used his clothed to repair the boats. When the crew finally reached Mexico City, they were received by Hernan Cortes, the Viceroy. There, Cabeza de Vaca told stories about the “seven golden cities” that the Indians told them about. In 1537 he sailed back to Europe. After writing his reports, he went back to South America and was appointed governor of Río de la Plata in present-day Argentina.
The obstacles he and his crew faced are hard to imagine, but he returned to Europe alive and even wrote a book about his expedition.